Winter is the time gardeners plan. Sitting inside, looking out a window onto a cold, wintery garden does something to bring out ideas and dreams. We might clearly all the things that need doing, and if looking out that window you see that your garden needs some screening, read on . . .

Reasons to Plant Screening Trees

It might seem obvious why you put in screening plants – because you have something to hide, right? In reality, it could be you don’t even realize that what is missing in your garden is screening. We often get used to the way things are, and don’t consciously see what it is that we are finding unsettling. Even if you are fairly comfortable with what you see from your garden, don’t underestimate the impact of enclosing the space, and creating a solid green backdrop to your garden. It creates intimacy, and all your plants look better and more significant against a wall, rather than against the background of neighboring houses, passing cars, or even simply the sky. If you don’t think so, imagine for a moment your living room furniture sitting in a field. What do you think? Does it look better or worse? I think you get the point.

Screening gives you that calm, green background, and the feeling of privacy and isolation is very calming on the spirit too. You will be less inhibited and more relaxed. In practical terms too, screening can block noise – from cars, neighbors, sports – and so make a more relaxed atmosphere too. It will reduce wind and make your garden warmer for both you and your plants too.

A good hedge or windbreak will raise the environment inside often by half a zone (from 6 to 5b for example), allowing you to experiment with a range of borderline plants. By reducing the wind speed you increase the ‘real feel’ of the temperature, making it warmer for humans too, extending the time you can comfortable use your outdoor space. In winter the slower wind will release snow further from your home, reducing drifting, and snow blowing through a hedge will be trapped, instead of building up inside, or against your home.

Check the Site

Once you decide to put in that screen, the next step is to look at the area you want to plant it along. How much space is there available? If this is along a property line, remember that you need to plant you hedge along a line that is at least 3 feet inside that line for a smaller hedge, and 6 feet inside for a larger hedge or unclipped screen. Then there is the thickness of the screen itself, which can grow to be 12 feet wide if you use larger trees. Often how much space you have available will decide what plants you use, and if you trim or leave it au naturel.

While you are outside checking this with your tape, take the opportunity to measure the length too, so that you can calculate the number of plants you need. This will depend on which plants you choose, but to calculate that number, divide the distance by the number of plants, and then add one more. No, not for good luck, but because the first and last plants will be placed at half the distance from the edges as the distance the plants are apart. For example, if you need to space your trees 6 feet apart, the first and last ones will be 3 feet from whatever it is that makes the end – your front property line for example, or your garage or house.

Choose the Best Plants for Your Location and Purpose

Now you can think about what type of plants you want to use. In most cases something evergreen makes sense, since it gives you screening 365 days of the year. But sometimes a deciduous tree is a better choice, if, for example, the screen is close to windows on its north side. The winter sun is low in the sky, and an evergreen hedge can make rooms dark when it casts a long shadow.

The main factors in deciding which evergreen will be the height you want, and where you live. For smaller hedges, and for all hedges in colder regions, the Emerald Green Arborvitae is a top choice. Hardy in zone 3, this dense selection of the native white cedar is perfect for hedges up to 6 or 8 feet, and it can easily be kept narrow too, an important consideration in a smaller garden. If you garden in zone 5 or warmer, the traditional choice would have been Leyland Cypress, but that has largely been replaced with Thuja Green Giant, which is very fast growing, but not quite as big. This tough and reliable hybrid evergreen will give you a solid screen, and it is drought, salt drift, and deer resistant too. For most gardens it is the ‘go to’ plant for screens and hedges. If you live in a very hot and very dry region, like Arizona or California, then consider using Italian Cypress, which is super drought-resistant, and has beautiful dark foliage that looks good under a hot, blue sky.

Planting Distances

Now it’s time to figure out how many plants you need for that screen. If you have limited space, you will certainly go for a single row. With larger evergreens like Thuja Green Giant, a spacing of 3 feet is the absolute minimum, and 4 or 5 feet is better, if you have a little more patience. This allows the plants to develop more at the base and keeps your planting thick right to the ground. For smaller evergreens, that 3 foot spacing is just about perfect. Anything less than 2 feet will mean the base is always thin, with a tendency to die out. If you have more room and opt for a double row, you end up with the densest screen. Space the rows 2 or 3 feet apart, and stagger the plants in each row, allowing 5 to 8 feet apart for the plants in each row. Again, use the smaller spacing for smaller evergreens or for a quicker fill with something larger, like Thuja Green Giant.

Plan your Soil Preparation

Now you are ready to order, and all that remains is to plan on preparing the site. Depending on where you live, you might be able to do this during the winter months, or wait until the ground thaws in spring. Either way, plan on rototilling a strip at least 3 feet wide for a single hedge (obviously wider for a double one) and incorporating a good quantity of rich organic material into the ground. Get the biggest tiller you can handle, and then work it as deep as possible into the ground. Bring in enough compost to dig in a 3 or 4-inch layer, and still have enough left over to mulch about 2 inches deep after planting.

That’s it. Once you have your plants ordered for a date after you will have the ground prepared, you are all set to put in the perfect screen, and reap all the benefits of privacy, warmth and silence. Enjoy!